Dalton High School senior Cole Young and Morris Innovative High School senior Gerson Gomez were each selected as a finalist for a Georgia Department of Education Award of Excellence for the Northwest Georgia Region by the Division for Special Education Services and Supports. The students were both honored at a reception on May 7 by State Superintendent Richard Woods at the GaDOE in Atlanta.
The Awards of Excellence recognize the outstanding accomplishments of graduating seniors. Accomplishments can be in the areas of academics, athletics, career/vocational skill, innovative use of technology, social/emotional growth, and/or community service. All nominees received a Certificate of Recognition from the Georgia Department of Education.
Young was nominated for the award by Laurie Wright, secondary specially designed learning specialist with DPS Exceptional Student Services. Wright said she nominated Young because of the many outstanding accomplishments he has achieved in his academic career.
"Cole Young is an amazing young man," Wright explained. "He will graduate from Dalton High School on May 25 with an unweighted GPA of 3.8 and he has been a Dual Enrollment student at Dalton State College this past school year, making it on the Dean's List. He has a long list of accomplishments, achievements, community volunteer activities, leadership positions and extracurricular involvement."
Young said he never imagined he would receive such a significant award in high school, but he owes thanks to the faculty and teachers who helped him through the years.
Nancy Hallsworth made a huge impact on him, as he spent three years in graphic design classes and hopes to one day use his skills in computer science or video game design. He thanked Minako Barry for helping him feel confident in class and for encouraging him to pursue the Mock Trial team, a group of people that helped Young find his place and feel accepted.
Young was also involved in SkillsUSA, Beta Club, National Honor Society and Delta Epsilon Phi National Honors Society for German High School Students. He placed in the region competition for the State Bar of Georgia Mock Trial two years in a row. In addition, Young found time to practice Taekwondo and will earn his Black Belt this month.
Young said Laurie Wright was an instrumental part of his success in school. "Mrs. Wright helped me get settled in high school, and without her I wouldn't have gotten this far," he said. "She's the one who got me to serve as mentor in the self-advocacy group."
Young is a key mentor in the Social Skills Club for Autism Students. He and another student mentor, Rhys Mahan, sit with their classmates at lunch, get the conversation going and try to help them feel more comfortable and secure.
Young said that he was diagnosed with Autism in the fifth grade, which is later than most. "It never really hindered me," he explained. "I just said, 'I'm not going to let this slow me down. I'm just going to keep moving forward and do my best.'"
After graduation, Young will travel to Germany and practice his honed German skills after being a member of German Club for four years and hosting three German exchange students with his family. In the fall, Young plans to attend Kennesaw State University's Marietta campus, where he will major in computer engineering.
Gomez was nominated for the award by Lead Special Education Teacher Kelley-Marie Sierra. Sierra said she nominated Gomez because he has made tremendous and remarkable progress since starting school at Morris Innovative as a sophomore.
In the past, Gomez labeled himself as a bad student. He spent time in the alternative school, failed classes and did not care about anything. When he started at MIHS, things changed, people helped and he decided to turn things around. Since then, he has earned no behavior referrals. Last semester he made all B's and is currently finishing out this semester with three A's.
Sierra said Gomez always does whatever is asked of him, and he perseveres through tasks that are challenging. "In spite of numerous obstacles, such as immigrating to the United States from Guatemala, struggling with a learning disability, struggling to have enough money for basic needs, and becoming a young father, Gerson has persisted," she said. "Not only has he persisted to earn a high school diploma, but he has done so with tremendous gratitude for the people and circumstances who have helped him. He wants to help others by sharing his experience and promoting the message that if he can make it to graduation from high school and beyond, anyone can."
Gomez explained that the opportunity to receive his diploma is not something he takes for granted. In Guatemala, getting an education was only for the wealthy. He will be the first person in his family to earn a high school diploma and have the ability to attend a post-secondary institution. Although he has entertained ideas about dropping out of high school because it would mean more money and time to devote to his family, he realizes that a high school diploma is worth more in the future, and he wants to be a positive role model for his son. Further, he wants to prove to his family that he is thankful for their sacrifice for him.
"To me, it means so much more than the paper itself," he said.
Gomez said that this achievement feels like he has done something good for his family. "It gives me hope and it shows others that if they can dream it, they can achieve it," he said. "I am a hard working student, I maintain myself and I keep my goals in reach. No matter how hard life gets, you can make it."
His involvement in school and the support from his teachers have given him the push to reach the end. He volunteers in classes for students who are new to the country and learning English to help them learn and adjust to the new culture. He also volunteers his translation services to the community by helping parents of DPS students learn English and by providing translation services to the Greater Dalton Chamber of Commerce and local elementary schools.
Gomez thanks the teachers that helped him get to where he is today, like Paige Watts and Sierra. "It feels like I am repaying the people who helped me out, because I was once in those shoes," he said. "Being in the Translation Academy gives me a chance to thank those people because without them and their caring hearts, I wouldn't have made it this far."
After high school, Gomez plans to continue working full-time to support his family, though he would love to attend Georgia Northwestern Technical School in the future. His goal is to eventually start a career in welding.